Nearer the Gods, the new play from David Williamson, has been described as ‘a big departure’ from his wonted repertoire of Australian middle-class studies. It departs from contemporary Australia for seventeenth-century England in exploring the events that lead to the publication of Isaac Newton’s revolutionary text Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), and how it almost didn’t happen. It is hard to imagine that a new Williamson play would be considered a risk – even in an unconventional performance space. As the first production mounted in the newly refurbished corner stage of the Billie Brown Theatre, Nearer the Gods is an experiment that exploits, thematically and technically, the dynamic lighting, sound, and vast space of the impressive new stage.
Directed by Sam Strong, the play concerns the pursuits of the astronomer Edmund Halley (played with great passion by Matthew Backer) to publish Newton’s Principia despite spiritual, social, and financial adversity. In the demanding role of Isaac Newton, Rhys Muldoon is a standout; he plays the mad scientist with unbridled spirit. Backer and Muldoon encapsulate the combative, often frustrating relationship between Halley and Newton with humour and urgency.
While this relationship lies at the heart of the play, there are larger questions at stake, as might be expected in a play about the nature of the universe. Nearer the Gods looks at the people behind remarkable discoveries and at the human drama that complicates the pursuit of Newton’s three laws of motion. This human drama is explored to striking effect in the relationship between Halley and his wife, Mary, who is played with enthusiasm by Kimie Tsukakoshi. In his quest to publish Principia, Edmund reveals his religious doubts to Mary. A devout Christian, she wrestles with his opposition to the Church of England but helps him to pursue the science nonetheless. Edmund’s belief in the Principia, as an atheist, and his faith in Newton’s science, despite his imperfect understanding of it, suggests that faith in science is not altogether different from a faith in a higher power. Sam Strong has said that David Williamson (who has now been staging plays since 1970), has a unique ability to tell stories that need to be told. While I was not completely convinced while this story needed to be told now, it could be argued that questions of faith versus science will always be relevant. We cannot deduce the answers to questions of religion (or science) without a certain kind of faith.